Gwynne Dyer: We are passing the point of no return on climate change

It may seem premature to talk about last-ditch measures to deal with runaway climate change, but Ben Lieberman has it right. Lieberman, an energy expert at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think-tank, responded to the news that the U.S. Senate will not pass any climate legislation this year by saying: "It's pretty clear that no post-Kyoto treaty is in the making—certainly not in Cancun, and maybe not ever."

The Cancun meeting next December is where the optimists hoped to untangle the mess left by last December’s abortive climate summit in Copenhagen and create a new treaty to replace the Kyoto accord, which expires in 2012. It was always a slim hope, but the U.S. Senate has decisively crushed it. Big Coal and Big Oil win again.

The U.S. Senate is one of the more corrupt legislative bodies in the Western world, so this comes as little surprise. Few senators take direct bribes for personal use, but very many believe that they will not win re-election unless they accept cash donations from special interests like the fossil fuel industries. Taking the cash obliges them to vote in defence of those interests. Pity about the public interest.

As Senate majority leader Harry Reid put it: “We know that we don't have the votes." The Democrats control 59 out of 100 seats in the Senate, but some of their more vulnerable members have been picked off by the fossil fuel lobby, so there will be no serious climate legislation in the United States before the mid-term Congressional elections in November. And it’s not going to get better after November, according to current forecasts.

The likelihood that the Democrats will emerge from the November Congressional elections with a bigger majority in the Senate is approximately zero. The probability is that the balance will tilt the other way, perhaps a little, perhaps a lot. Either way, that means that there will be no climate legislation in the United States until after the next Congressional election in November 2012.

Maybe President Barack Obama will be back in office in early 2013 with a bigger majority in the Senate, but that’s the earliest that we can hope for any legal U.S. commitment to cut its emissions—and it’s far from sure even then. Until the United States makes that commitment, you may be sure that none of the rapidly growing economies like China, India, or Brazil will make it either. So the climate goes runaway.

Not right away, of course. We won’t actually reach the point of no return (+2 degrees C higher average global temperature) until the late 2020s or the early 2030s. But we will be committed to that outcome much sooner, because with every year that passes, the cuts that we would need to make to hold the temperature below that level become deeper. Eventually, in practice, they become impossible to achieve.

Before the current recession, global emissions of greenhouse gases were growing at almost three percent per year, and they will certainly return to that level when the recession ends. To come in under +2 degrees C of warming, we needed to be reducing global emissions by at least two percent by 2012: a total cut of around five percent each year, assuming that economies grow at the same rate as before.

That would have been hard to do, but not impossible. However, as the years pass and the emissions continue to grow, it gets harder and harder to turn the juggernaut around in time. On the most optimistic timetable, there might be U.S. climate legislation in 2013, and a global climate deal in 2014, and we really start reducing emissions by 2015.

By then, we would need to be cutting emissions by five or six percent a year, instead of growing them at three percent a year, if we still want to come in under +2 degrees C. That’s impossible. No economy can change the sources of its energy at the rate of eight or nine percent a year. So we are going to blow right through the point of no return.

Plus two degrees C is the point of no return (and every government has recognized it as such) because after that the additional warmth triggers natural processes that speed the warming. The permafrost melts and emits enormous amounts of greenhouse gases. The warming oceans lose their ability to absorb carbon dioxide. After that, just cutting human emissions won’t stop the warming. Runaway.

The only way to avert that disaster that currently offers any hope is geo-engineering: direct intervention to hold the actual global temperature increase below 2 degrees C, no matter what happens in the short term to the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

There are various suggestions on the table. Maybe we could create a kind of sunscreen in the stratosphere by putting some sulphur dioxide gas up there. Maybe we could thicken up the clouds over the ocean so they reflect more sunlight. Maybe, maybe, maybe. But nobody has done serious field trials of these techniques, and it’s high time that they started. We are probably going to need them.

Welcome to the last ditch.

The second edition of Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, Climate Wars, has just been published in Canada by Random House.




Jul 27, 2010 at 11:25am

Yawn, yet another whiney article by an alarmist.

Peter Malsin

Jul 27, 2010 at 3:21pm

Gwynne has it about right except for maybe two things. First, given that China has overtaken the US in emissions, the China factor is just as crucial as is US action/non-action: which country will be first to challenge "the world" with a radical program. 2nd, my guess is that at some points there will be WWII type mobilizations, country by country as well as in context of world agreement, to turn the Titanic around. That could be in the 2020s however.


Jul 27, 2010 at 7:12pm

myob: there's a well written, persuasive article floating around the net entitled "Cold Comfort: the psychology of climate change". I would suggest you have a look at but for the fact that you don't seem to be read an article and comprehend the basic facts, so perhaps you could get someone to read it for and explain it in simpler terms. Better that way, I think, letting someone else guide your thinking, given you sound like the very kind of person who the oil & coal companies delight in being able to manipulate so easily.

Sink or Swin

Jul 27, 2010 at 8:12pm

I thought Canada didn't have to worry about oil leaks until today that is and tomorrow and every other day after as its the name of the game as Ontario pipe leaks into lake and water and oil don't mix any better than it did in the Gulf. China is a big time player in Canada's tar sands and its thirst for tar is beyond the rest and Canada will be left with a great big environmental disaster as Alberta is doing acid rain and the damage done to the environment is way above the rest.

Skip Marshall

Jul 27, 2010 at 8:42pm

Gwynne Dyer needs to do some research. He needs to consult with atmospheric physicists who know more about climate than anyone else.

They all say climate change is nonsense. here's why:

CO2 absorbs long wave solar radiation at a certain and limited frequency and reflects short wave radiation, mostly into space but some to the earth's surface which warms mostly from the ground up. However, the frequency of solar radiation absorbed is already being absorbed to extinction. You can put as much CO2 into the air as you want and little or no additional heat will be produced.

The hypothesis of AGW was a good one at first but it has been thoroughly and expertly debunked by REAL scientists.

This is the story Gwynne needs to be covering to avoid looking rather foolish.


Jul 27, 2010 at 10:28pm

The climate has always changed on this planet, as well they've been spraying in Vancouver on and off for almost 10 years.
Google "Vancouver Chemtrails"


Jul 28, 2010 at 12:33am

Maybe in a few decades there'll be a big die-off of humanity, just like the sudden 30% drop in population in both Europe and China during the Black Death. Perhaps most of African, three-quarters of Indians and of Brazilians, and half of Chinese will die, halving, or even quartering, the world's population to a more manageable level. And just like after the Black Death, life went on, even with much fewer people.


Jul 28, 2010 at 3:40am

We're screwed. This Titanic has about thirty different captains squabbling over seating arrangements and who gets to hold the steering wheel and who gets the nicest view. And the iceburg could care less. And there are the deniers in steerage who confidently declaim that there is no ice and the proof is that we're still afloat. I only wish I could bet this in the futures market, that it weren't, you know, a sucker's bet.

Nick Palmer

Jul 28, 2010 at 5:37am

Skip. Your comment is pure garbage - it is simply not physics. You have been fooled by liars who have told you plausible, but false, B.S. Atmospheric physicists do not "all say climate change is nonsense" - this is a pure lie. In the 1950's the "absorption is saturated" idea was a legitimate sceptical objection - but it was answered and found to be false 50 years ago. Of course, the denialist propaganda movement, who misrepresent themselves as sceptics, endlessly plug these lies and misdirections because they know that they fool the innocent, the stupid and the ignorant.

Try reading this for a more balanced view of the physics before you repeat your junk beliefs


Jul 28, 2010 at 10:19am

Honestly....with China in the picture we dont have a chance. They treat the world with the least amount of respect, and would be the last to change.